Subject: ABC: Debate over whether to have reconciliation process

TIMOR: Debate over whether to have reconciliation process 6/09/01 17:23:49 | Asia Pacific Programs

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Tomorrow is the second anniversary of the Suai massacre in East Timor, when Indonesian backed militias stormed the Suai church slaughtering hundreds of civilians seeking sanctuary, after a terror campaign following East Timor's independence vote. So far no-one has been indicted for the Suai killings. There are diverging views about whether prosecuting those responsible for war crimes will benefit East Timor as a nation. Xanana Gusmao wants amnesties considered for those involved in the killings and is pushing for a reconciliation approach. But others fear a reconciliation process will allow war criminals to re-enter East Timor with impunity.


(SFX of women wailing at Suai massacre memorial)

FITZGERALD: Widows in Suai grieving for the victims of the Suai Church massacre. On September the 6th 1999, one week after the UN ballot that set East Timor on the path to independence, militia groups, backed by the Indonesian military, slaughtered hundreds of people who had sought sanctuary in the Church. The victims included women, children and priests.

Two years later an extraordinary meeting is taking place in a thatched community hall behind the church.

East Timor militia leader Helio Caetano Monis has returned to Suai, the town his militia comrades gutted two years ago and he is facing a crowd of hundreds of villagers.

Helio lives in a refugee camp in West Timor and has returned to his hometown, to ask his relatives and neighbours to forgive the violence two years ago and to allow him and his comrades to return home.

His visit is sponsored by the United Nations and receives a favourable reception from the Suai community representatives who are lining the front benches of the meeting.

This youth leader tells Helio he can return to Suai providing those who committed the killings face justice.

There are no raised fists or angry accusations, just hundreds of villagers staring intently at Helio's face.

Outside the meeting Suai man Sylvania Lopez says despite all the deaths the community wants the militia leaders to return so the civilians trapped in the West Timor camps can come back home with them.

LOPEZ: "Yeah I'm not angry with him because now I want peace, I want peace with him, with them."

FITZGERALD: And how about the other people in Suai, how do they feel if he returns to Suai with his militia men?

LOPEZ: "I think everybody will be happy because they can come together, we can have reconciliation with them about front for East Timor."

FITZGERALD: Later back at the sprawling UN compound in Dili, I asked the 29-year old Helio Caetano Monis why he had returned to face the community which his militia comrades devastated two years ago. He says he is bringing messages of reconciliation from the refugee camps on the border.

MONIS: "We ask for apologies for everything that happened in the past, and we see this as a collective trouble of all of us. So we are prepared to forget everything and we are ready to start a new life together in the independence of East Timor. We all say congratulations for everybody for Falantil, for CNRT, for everybody who has struggled for change for years against Indonesian occupation, also against our choice."

FITZGERALD: How difficult was it for you to go back to Suai today and face all those people?

MONIS: "The difficulty for me is that after the ballot we all leaving East Timor and my friends in Suai or my brother or my friends in Kovalima they have accused me, my family that we must take responsibility with everything happening. And I think it is ok but I should clarify first to them that I am not as what they are thinking. But if they don't believe me I just ask them please let me come to justice, to a court."

FITZGERALD: Some people in West Timor must be unhappy about you wanting to pursue reconciliation because they want to keep the past alive. Will you face any pressure or threats from them?

MONIS: "I'm aware that I will be facing many difficulties, especially many of my friends will hate me because it's so that I have left them in their struggle, but I will accepting, I hopefully, one day I am not wrong and they will follow what I do today."

FITZGERALD: Helio has pledged to bring back as many as seven thousand refugees, which explains why the UN has sponsored his visit to East Timor.

The visit is part of a reconciliation campaign, orchestrated by the UN, and backed by national leader Xanana Gusmao.

The UN has established a Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, which will steer the reconciliation process between victims and lower ranking militia members.

Vicki Tcheong works for the commission and says many victims of the massacres want to be able to confront the perpetrators to help them overcome past trauma.

TCHEONG: "They usually had very democratic way of resolving conflicts in the community level and what they used to do is lay the mat on the floor and then start chewing their betel nuts and smoke the corn leaf, dried corn leaf tobacco, and then start talking to each other about problems. And they had a middle man who is probably in the modern term the judicial head in the village who would act as the mediator and talk between the perpetrators and the victims and resolve the issue. So it's not really a new thing for the community."

FITZGERALD: The push to reconcile the people of East Timor and the militia leaders has its critics though.

Within the UN it's created a tug of war between staff working on the well-resourced reconciliation program and the under-resourced Serious Crimes Unit, which is prosecuting war criminals.

James Dunn has worked with the Serious Crimes Unit and was an Australian diplomat in East Timor over 30 years ago.

He wants to see an International Tribunal held to prosecute East Timor's war criminals and is critical of the UN's emphasis on reconciliation. He says it could further delay the trials of detained militia leaders and derail the prosecution of more serious war criminals.

DUNN: "There is talk now of offering an amnesty to the militia leaders in West Timor, and that would mean of course that are they going to release these guys from prison? Because these are the small people, they're ordinary fighters who were given orders to attack, were given drugs in most cases by Indonesian officers, and of course they killed and they're now deeply remorseful. So whether they're going to be released or not I don't know, but they've gone through a UN process.

"And there are different views on this, I mean at the one end you have Xanana and the UN representative who had been negotiating this, the return of the refugees from West Timor. And you have people who have had relatives killed or themselves have been brutalised, been tortured who are really not so ready to forgive and forget. It's not over yet because you know I've talked to many people who are very fond of Xanana and want him to be president but don't agree with this process of forgiving and forgetting.

"I think it has to go a little way ahead, there has been a process of bringing these people back and in some cases to confront the community and to talk over whether they'll be allowed back. And I think by and large it's been a positive process, but I don't know what's going to happen when the really bad militia leaders come back, I mean those who like Jaoa Tevarres who were responsible for murder over a long period of time. I think that's going to be more difficult.

"And for me, the big issue in any case is what about the commanders? I mean what we mustn't forget is that what happened in 1999 was a carefully planned conspiracy by a group of senior Indonesian military officers with the knowledge of Wiranto to sabotage this process of self-determination and prevent the loss of East Timor."

FITZGERALD: Back in Suai, there are fresh flowers on the memorial stones. At the church hall Sister Elsa Fernades shows me the simple graves of the slaughtered priests. She says the community reconciliation meeting has stirred up painful and upsetting memories.

FERNADES: "I am really sorry now because on the 6th of September 1999 is something that is hard to forget, it's very, very, I don't know how to explain it. One day you can look at their friends who came from Atambua, they said we feel like the 6th of September. Looking at his face we remember everything that already passed, especially the priests.

"And at the same time they said please, tell the people out there to be back and then so that they can see how we are. If we are happy they are also happy and tell them to come back. And the others said please, when they come back accept them, forgive them."

[The sound from the Suai memorial service was from the documentary film Circle of Stones by Jenny Hughes]

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